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Readings in Nonviolence

‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

Peace and sport with special reference to the Olympics

By Tony Kempster

“All that I know surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” (Albert Camus, author and goalkeeper)

“Sport has the power to change the world.” (Nelson Mandela)

Sport has reached a global scale of development that no other human activity can match. The way it touches all sectors of society, irrespective of age, gender, religion and frontiers, gives it an unparalleled potential to communicate and mobilise.

In recent years, an awareness of its potential to support development policies and peace-keeping processes has grown. Driven by the gradual emergence of an international civil society, and the relative decrease in the influence of states, the growing importance that sport has acquired in the lives of people, gives it a great opportunity to positively promote a peaceful society. Its basic characteristics of fair competition within specified rules are well suited to this role. Sport can also be a powerful tool for the empowerment of women and girls simply through their direct involvement and the publicity attached to medal winners.

But, one has also to acknowledge that it has a darker side which can damage and divide people. Where there is a winner there may also be a resentful loser. To win at all costs can lead to corruption and other abuses (drugs, foul play and cheating.) Sport can also be used as a vehicle for narrow nationalism and sectarian violence. George Orwell said, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of the rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words: it is war minus the shooting.” An extreme statement perhaps, but it does underline that the unique power held by sport comes with a responsibility to act for the general good. Careful monitoring and policing of high-profile sports activities are also clearly crucial to avoid bad practices.

The Olympic Games, more than any other event, has the potential role to break down the barriers between countries. Indeed, in 2010, the President of the UN General Assembly declared that the Olympic Games “bring together athletes from all around the world ... to promote peace and mutual understanding and goodwill among all states”. The Paralympics, now the world’s second largest multi-sport competition has the stated aim: “To help through the medium of sport to further friendship and understanding amongst nations”. Given their massive global media coverage these two competitions represent a perfect opportunity to get a particular message across using a national boycott and the slogan: “Human rights before the Olympics” has often been used by the boycotters.

But things are not quite so hunky-dory. The Olympic Truce in ancient Greece was created to enable people to travel and participate in the Games in peace. This notion was revived for the Winter Olympics of 1994 and participating states commit to pursue peace and reconciliation throughout the period of the Games. But, since then, the Truce has been broken at every single Olympics/Paralympics by some sort of conflict within the 192 countries that sign it.

The Olympic Games also has a strong link with nationalism and can be used for political propaganda sometimes turning out for the better as the following examples show. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were intended as a showcase for Nazi Germany. However Africa-American Jesse Owens won four gold medals – a major blow to the Nazi claim of Aryan superiority. During the long-jump final Owen struck up a friendship with his German rival, Luz Long. Sports teams were symbols of apartheid in South Africa, and were targeted by protestors around the world. These protests contributed to the collapse of the Apartheid system in 1992. In February 2008 athletes from the Columbian Paralympics team demonstrated for peace. Many of the athletes had been disabled as a result of the political violence and drug-trafficking that has caused huge suffering to civil society in Columbia. There message was one of sport as a voice for peace.

And sport-based campaigns for political causes occur frequently outside the Olympics. An interesting example is as follows. Pakistan and India have been at war over the disputed territory of Kashmir a number of times since independence from the British Empire in 1947. Pakistani Aisam Ul Haq Qureshi and Indian Rohan Bopanna, popularly known as “Indo-Pak Express”, started the “Stop War Start Tennis” campaign. They have urged their respective governments to allow a tennis match to be held with a net strung across the only road crossing between India and Pakistan. At the 2008 African Cup of Nations Mohamed Aboutrika, African player of the year, removed his jersey to show a T-shirt reading “Sympathise with Gaza” in protest against the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Aboutrika believes that “Every athlete has a humanitarian role in society. He doesn’t live solely for himself, but for others too”, and is involved in much humanitarian work.

There are innumerable opportunities for sport celebrities to use their profile to promote human rights and freedom. One cannot talk about such matters without reference to Lord Philip Noel-Baker, a true hero of sport and peace. He remains the only person in history to have won both an Olympic medal and a Nobel Peace Prize and had a major impact on international politics. He was also a vice-president of the International Peace Bureau (Geneva) and the organisation has been promoting him as an example that others might follow.

Examples like Noel-Baker are important because there is still much to do. Sport deserves greater consideration and application in crisis situations and in post-conflict reconstruction. It should also be used more globally to foster the conditions necessary for sustainable peace. More emphasis could also be placed on its role in promoting the rights of women.

Many sportspeople do get involved in peace projects. They might act as international ambassadors for peace or use their skills and attitudes to set up sporting competitions with young people in countries where violence is common or in post-violence zones where sectarian animosity still remains. A key potential role is in the reintegration of children affected by war. According to a UNICEF report, “... in times of conflict, post conflict and emergencies, sport can provide children with a sense of hope and normalcy. It can help traumatized children integrate the experience of pain, fear and loss.”

Peace and Sport founded four years ago in Monaco, funds and promotes such work and a growing number of projects are being undertaken in Africa and Asia and some are giving positive results in what appeared to by unfavourable circumstances. For further information read Peace through sport: when the myth becomes reality by Joël Bouzou (Armand Colin, 2010). And there are many other projects elsewhere just to name a few. StreetChance targets youngsters through “Street 20”, a fast-paced, more accessible version of cricket that uses a tennis ball bound with electric tape, with games lasting for just 20 minutes. Football Unites, Racism Divides was started in 1995 by a group of Sheffield United fans. They believe that football can help bring together people from different backgrounds to play, watch and enjoy the game. The civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, leaving thousands of amputees. One of the ways the amputees attempt to rebuild their lives is through football. In January 2008 about 250,000 Kenyans were displaced by post-electoral violence following the disputed election victory of President Mwai Kibaki. In March 2008 the Shoe4Africa Peace run took place in Iten, Kenya with over a thousand school children. After the race Kenyan athletic stars led a parade of peace through the town with all the children singing and dancing behind, shouting Amani Kenya (Peace in Kenya). And the Northern Ireland example: PeacePlayers International (PPI) uses sport – in particular – to unite and educate young people from Protestant and Catholic communities. By regularly competing together on mixed teams, children from these historically divided groups discover common ground and forge new friendships.

The world needs heroes and heroines more than ever before. As we move deeper into the 21st century we will have to respond to increasing threats to peace and security particularly from increasing militarism, resource depletion and climate change. Such heroes will have the vision to speak beyond the interests of national constituencies, reach across ethnic and religious divides and act in ways which have the potential to benefit the whole of humanity. International sport has the power to influence the world in just these ways. The authority to use this power lies largely in the hands of sportsmen and women.

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The examples given in this article are taken from the “Playing for peace” exhibition being produced by The Peace Museum (Bradford) and the Centre for Reconciliation and Peace (University of Coventry). This exhibition will have a website and also be travelling to different venues in 2012. Please email Tony Kempster ( if you would like further details.

And one last quote. Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, refused to fight in the Vietnam War in the 1960s. He said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Copyright INNATE 2016